What Do We Really Know about Right and Wrong?

Thursday, 06-28-2018


I’m pleased to say that the video of my talk “What Do We Really Know about Right and Wrong?” is now online.

This was delivered at a Veritas Forum at Texas A&M University.


Good and Bad Discontent

Monday, 06-25-2018


There are two kinds of discontent.  If we endlessly desire material things, even though we have enough, this is intemperance.  But if we endlessly desire God, for whom we were made, of whom we cannot have enough until the life to come, this is hope.

Oddly, some people confuse these two discontents.  They think that always wanting more, more, more is the divine spark, and that if we ever ceased to be greedy and pugnacious, then life would flatten out.  There are many variations on this theme.

Then again, it isn’t difficult to see how the confusion arises.  Without realizing it, even the crassest worldling longs for God.  His problem is mistaken identification.  Why?  Because he thinks his longing is for something he can find in this world.

St. Augustine taught that mistaken identification is the real reason for the fierce energies of every distorted desire:

“Ambition seeks honor and glory, although You alone are to be honored before all and glorious forever.

“By cruelty the great seek to be feared, yet who is to be feared but God alone: from His power what can be wrested away, or when or where or how or by whom?

“The caresses by which the lustful seduce are a seeking for love: but nothing is more caressing than Your charity, nor is anything more healthfully loved than Your supremely lovely, supremely luminous Truth.

“Curiosity may be regarded as a desire for knowledge, whereas You supremely know all things.

“Ignorance and sheer stupidity hide under the names of simplicity and innocence: yet no being has simplicity like to Yours: and none is more innocent than You, for it is their own deeds that harm the wicked.

“Sloth pretends that it wants quietude: but what sure rest is there save the Lord?

“Luxuriousness would be called abundance and completeness; but You are the fullness and inexhaustible abundance of incorruptible delight.

“Wastefulness is a parody of generosity: but You are the infinitely generous giver of all good.

“Avarice wants to possess overmuch: but You possess all.

“Enviousness claims that it strives to excel: but what can excel before You?”

“Anger clamors for just vengeance: but whose vengeance is so just as Yours?

“Fear is the recoil from a new and sudden threat to something one holds dear, and a cautious regard for one's own safety: but nothing new or sudden can happen to You, nothing can threaten Your hold upon things loved, and where is safety secure save in You?

“Grief pines at the loss of things in which desire delighted: for it wills to be like to You from whom nothing can be taken away.

“Thus the soul is guilty of fornication when she turns from You and seeks from any other source what she will nowhere find pure and without taint unless she returns to You.

“Thus even those who go from You and stand up against You are still perversely imitating You.  But by the mere fact of their imitation, they declare that You are the creator of all that is, and that there is nowhere for them to go where You are not.”

Quoted from Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 2, Ch. 6, Secs. 13-14

See also:


Christian Hedonism?


Public Worship, Public Error, and Indifference

Monday, 06-18-2018



I'm a young Finnish man studying for a graduate degree in Philosophy, among other things.  First of all I want to thank you for your work, from which I have profited considerably.  I refer both to your work as a researcher and as a blogger -- in them I've found a source of intellectual and spiritual nourishment.  One of the reasons I am today committed to classical philosophy in general and to a rather orthodox Thomism in particular is because I stumbled upon a curious blog called “Underground Thomist” few years ago around the time I started to consider both as not only possible but very persuasive solutions to the numerous problems in modern philosophy.

Natural law demands private and public worship from a nation irregardless of divine revelation.  How conscious would “minimally classically theist” worship need to be in order to be better than complete secularism with no worship at all?  Obviously the worship of “Nature's God” requires does not yet have full specificity of Revelation, so for example you couldn't expect such pagan worshippers to worship God as Trinity.

To put it even more generally (and in this case question of worship's merit becomes much more dubious) from a natural law perspective is the worship of pagan gods preferable to the contemporary secular state, which invokes no divinities at all?



Before answering, let me prevent a possible misunderstanding by stating in what sense I do and in what sense I do not agree that the natural law requires public worship.  We can know, even by reason, apart from faith, that as a matter of justice, we should acknowledge our debts to others.  We can also know, even by reason, apart from faith, that we are indebted to God.  Therefore we should reverence Him.

Now if each of us does reverence Him, then of course we will give expression to this reverence as a community, and this is good.  From the beginning of our own republic, for example, we have established days of public thanksgiving.  But notice that doing such things does not require establishing an official religion, enforced by the state, and I am sure that such enforcement is detrimental to true faith.

Civil law direct us to the common temporal good, but for direction to the supernatural good, we are given not the state, but the Church.  The state must not treat the Church as a mere department of itself.

Now as to your first question:  According to St. Thomas Aquinas, not every act that is good in the sense that it conforms to natural law is also good in the sense of having merit.  Merit requires the transformation of motive which can result only from divine grace.  This vast change affects all aspects of the human person, including intellect, appetite, and will.  From this point of view, says St. Thomas, the virtues which are infused by grace, such as faith, hope, and love, “deserve to be called virtues simply,” since they direct us to our ultimate end in God.  By contrast, the acquired virtues, such as temperance and fortitude, are virtues only secundum quid, “in a restricted sense,” because although they direct us with respect to a particular kind of action, in a way which is compatible with our ultimate end in God, they do not actually direct us to this ultimate end – at least they do not do so unless they too are transformed by divine grace.  (I discuss all these matters in Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics.)

Now although all grace comes through Christ, and the ordinary means of grace involve explicit faith in Christ, St. Thomas does not think God is restricted to the use of these ordinary means.  In the Old Testament, the Patriarchs were saved by implicit faith in Christ who was to come.  This encourages the further question of who else might be implicitly responding to the Christ whom they did not explicitly know.  (I briefly discussed this question in the blog post “Anonymity.”)

Back to the question of the state.  Putting the term “god” in lower case to indicate anything to which a person gives unconditional loyalty, I would say that it isn’t possible not to have any “god” whatsoever.  The contemporary secular state, which pretends to have no god, actually does have gods – unfortunately, rather shabby ones.  I tried to work out the implications of this fact in the article “The Strange Second Life of Confessional States.”

As to your second question, whether all worship of small-g pagan gods is equally worthless:  If one clings to a pagan god in preference to the true God, then yes, such worship is worthless.  But if one adores God just insofar as one knows Him, even though one’s knowledge is veiled by pagan mistakes, matters may stand differently.  To know for sure which of these two things is going on in a person, one would have to see right into the soul, which we have no power to do.  Even so, in speaking with the Athenians, St. Paul thinks it makes sense to quote from their own pagan poets and mention their altar “To An Unknown God” -- and St. Thomas does not hesitate to credit the pagan writer Marcus Tullius Cicero with a certain limited insight into what the virtue of “religion” entails, even though Cicero does not know the true God.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote some penetrating lines on this subject.  You must be getting tired of my referring you to other things I’ve written – click here! click here! click here! -- but I’ve included that passage in the blog post “Is Believing in God Like Believing in Zeus?

See also:

Secularism and Its Children


“We Consider Ourselves Married”

Monday, 06-11-2018


Recently I spoke with a student who was strongly attracted to the view of marriage maintained by the natural law tradition.  He told me, though, that he had been cohabiting with the same woman for five years, and “we consider ourselves married.”  His question:  Isn’t this the equivalent of marriage?  Does it matter?

He wanted to do the right thing and he asked me to speak frankly, so I did.  Sure it matters.  One enters into the matrimonial commitment by mutual consent.  If we were living in anarchy, with no laws or customs, then that would be it.  Human experience has shown, however, that such an arrangement is unstable.  For this reason – even apart from sacramental considerations – the legal recognition of marriage requires that vows be exchanged in the presence of witnesses, and publicly registered.  This not only solemnizes them, but makes it possible for them to be enforced.

Cohabitation deliberately avoids these things.  So here is how you know whether you have a commitment:  If you’re married, you do.  If you aren’t married, you don’t.

“I’m not suggesting that you intend to leave her,” I asked, “but what if you did?  She would be left high and dry, and so would any children.”  I suggested to him that by not marrying her, he was doing her an injury, even if neither of them thought of it that way.

See also:

Social Justice

The Treatment of Wounds

Cohabitation Is Not Marriage Prep


On Trying to Be Good Without God

Monday, 06-04-2018


The mainstream of the classical tradition links the reality of the natural law with the reality of God.  Thomas Aquinas, for example, says that just as the authority of good human laws depends on the natural law, so the authority of natural law comes from the Eternal Law – from the Wisdom by which God made and governs the universe.

This doesn’t mean that whatever He could have commanded anything.  “He would deny Himself if He were to do away with the very order of His own justice, since He is justice itself.”

My atheist students often ask:  Can’t we be good without God?   In one sense, sure.  Just like everyone else, the atheist has a conscience, and with fair accuracy, he can work out the natural law.

But in another sense, no.  The atheist faces at least seven obstacles in understanding and following this law.

1.  Since he does not recognize God as the Supreme Good for which all created goods exist and to they are ordained, it will not make sense to him that although certain acts can be directed to the Supreme Good, others cannot.  Consequently, he will find it difficult to understand how any act can be intrinsically evil.  He will be inclined to think that for a good enough result, we may do anything.

2.  Since he does not recognize Divine providence, the idea that he should do the right thing and let God take care of the consequences will seem senseless to him.  It will seem to him that if there is no God, then he must play God himself.  He may find it difficult not to do evil for the sake of good.

3.  Since he does not recognize God as the Creator, he must regard conscience as the meaningless and purposeless result of a process that did not have him in mind.  Because it will be hard to believe that a ragtag collection of impulses and inhibitions left over from the accidents of natural selection could have anything to teach him, he will be tempted to think that the authority of conscience is an illusion.

4.  Since he does not have faith, he is likely to view his moral dilemmas as inescapable.  For if there is no God, how can he believe the assurance of faith that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it”?

5.  Since he does not believe in divine grace, he will be unable to avail himself of its assistance.  Certainly he will be able to perform naturally good acts.  However, when he meets the wall that each of us meets, when he finds himself doing the wrong he does not want to do and not doing the right that he wants to do, he will be unable to cry out for assistance.

6.  Since he does not believe in those spiritual virtues which depend on grace for their very existence, he will be unable to practice them at all.  For example, though he may love his wife with natural love, he will fail in that supernatural charity which enables him to see that since she is made in His image, the only true way to love her for her own sake is to love her for God’s sake.

7.  Finally, since only a person can forgive, the moral law will seem to him a harsh accuser with a heart of rock.  When he has done wrong, as we all do, he will long to drown out the condemning voice of conscience.  He will be tempted to tell himself that the law is a fantasy, that there is nothing to be forgiven, that the solution to the problem of guilt is that there is no such thing.  Or perhaps he will just try to talk himself into a lower standard.

So yes, for all these reasons -- some logical and some psychological -- we do need God to be good.

See also:

An Imaginary Interview about This Blog

Why Drag God Into Natural Law?

Can God Not Be Enough?




Reading the Omens

Monday, 05-28-2018


A reader comments:

I hadn’t seen your important point about the woman being at a disadvantage in cohabitation made before in quite the way you did in your post “Cohabitation Is Not Marriage Prep.”  A personal anecdote:

In January I attended the wedding of a distant relative.  She had cohabited with the same partner for more than five years -- they told us they couldn't afford to get married because of the cost of the wedding -- and, when, a year or so later they did starting planning to marry, the relationship broke up. 

Within another year or so she had settled down with a new man, with whom she had a baby.  He had a child from a previous relationship.  They planned ahead to marry the following year – again, I suspect, because of the money – and they did.

She had taken a year off work to stay with the baby, and wanted to work from home.  Before long, though, her husband was urging her to go out to work and earn what he considered real money.

I hope it works out for them, but the omens aren’t good.



Thanks.  Your story illustrates not only how women are at a disadvantage in cohabitation, but also how a couple’s history of cohabitation tends to hurt their subsequent marriage.

Strange that increased vulnerability should be considered liberation, but men have also diminished themselves.  A man who uses a woman is not much of a man.

And isn’t it odd to think it is more important to have a lavish wedding than to get married at all?



Monday, 05-21-2018


I usually post on Mondays.

Never underestimate the brutal power of desperation, on either the right or the left.

Early in the previous presidential administration, a young man showed up during my office hours to tell me his strategy for overcoming the other side in the culture wars.  He wasn’t one of my students, and I don’t know why he sought me out.  I suppose he thought I would be sympathetic.

Having learned about the lessons the then-president is supposed to have learned from community organizer Saul Alinsky, he said “Our side has to do that stuff too.”

What sort of stuff?  He meant things like threatening, lying about one’s goals, misrepresenting the other side’s positions, assassinating the character of opponents, and deliberately provoking crises in order to make people frantic for change.

As you may know, a lot of people since then have taken the same view.  Culture wars ignite cultural arms races.


I told him I didn’t believe in doing evil so that good would result.

But they’re destroying the country.  We have to save it.

How would it save the country to become just like the people he viewed as destroying it?

But they’re winning.  We can’t let them win.

What would he expect to win by destroying the moral order of the republic he claimed to love?

He demanded to know what I proposed instead.  I said he might try bearing witness.

I’m afraid he found me disappointing.  He seemed to think that I sympathized with the other side.